You had unlimited power and you chose to do what?

Suetonius was gossipy old fuck. Over the course of The Twelve Caesars, he labors over the worst behaviors of some of the most morally corrupt people in history, the Roman emperors, filling page after page with lurid details beyond the worst things you’ve imagined, while barely pretending to be shocked. It’s great! He’s the perfect man for this sticky job because he’s not squeamish, he’s thorough, and he’s a good enough writer to keep things moving. We get a full picture of each of the first dozen Roman emperors, from Caesar and Augustus down through the ones you’ve never heard of, and with the material he has to work with it’s a real page-turner. I mean, I’ve seen the Bob Guccione cut of Caligula, but nothing prepared me for the incomprehensible depravity that Suetonius blithely sets down on the page.

Right off the bat, it was good to get the play-by-play of Julius Caesar’s career and learn how and why he maneuvered his way to the purple, which I’d never really known. The way Suetonius makes it out, Caesar had overseen some funny financial business from his time as consul, and he was afraid to come back to Rome after governing one of the provinces because he thought his political enemy Marcus Cato was going to bring him up on charges. Plus, based on what I know from reading Livy and Gibbon, it’s obvious that civil war came very naturally to the Romans.

Suetonius spends the most time on Caesar, followed by Augustus, who seems like a swell guy. After that, you’ve got ten despotic madmen, each one worse than the last, wielding total power, indulging in grotesque luxury and sadism, subject to deep paranoia, and prone to downright kookiness. Suetonius follows a set formula, so you can count on him rattling through the details of their rise to power before describing the flavor and instances of their depravity, which in some cases is pretty lengthy. He always closes with a description of what they looked like.

Aside from the kinky stuff, I found the discussion of robbery especially interesting. These guys just flat out stole from everyone in sight. Augustus collected taxes like a diligent head bureaucrat, but some of these guys just raped and pillaged their own people. Nero used to loot shops at night and sell the stuff out of his rooms. Caligula was so ready to slit anyone’s throat that he could convince senators to buy his used couch for their entire fortune, leading more than one to kill themselves in despair. Several emperors seemed to encourage being named in wills, and then took to killing people with good nest eggs. It was quite brazen.

It’s also amazing that anyone would want the job of emperor, since it always seemed to end at the point of a blade. Domitian claimed that “all emperors are necessarily wretched, since only their assassination can convince the public that the conspiracies against their lives are real.” Domitian, of course, was stabbed to death in his groin, which I’m assuming is one of the most fuck you ways to stab someone to death. Caligula was stabbed while soldiers swung his daughter by the ankles to bash out her brains. Nero stabbed himself in the throat to avoid being punished “in the old fashion” by the Senate, which consisted of putting your head in a fork and flogging you to death with sticks. Galba was killed on the side of the road and left where he fell, only to be decapitated by a soldier who happened to walk by. Life was cheap in old Rome.

Vitellius had among the worst ends. He was on the losing end of a civil war, and for some reason he opted out of the abdication that he’d agreed to, holding on to power to the last. As Vespasian closed in on Rome, Vitellius basically freaked out and tried to escape to his country house, but then because he was in freak-out mode, he turned and headed back to the palace, which was now deserted, as all his aides and servants had deserted him by then except his cook and his valet. When they bailed on him too, he shoved some gold into his money belt and hid in the servants’ quarters—because, again, freak-out mode. The mattress he wedged against the door did little but annoy the advance guard who was searching the palace for him. After a feeble lie about who he was, they discovered the truth, and he was pretty roughly divested of the purple. They put a noose around his neck, a blade under his chin, and dragged him to the Forum. Along the way, the public flung dung and filth, hurled insults, and made a general mockery of him. He’d raped the city pretty roughly in his time, so it’s no wonder the crowd was so lively. The soldiers then “put him through the torture of the little cuts before finally killing him near the Gemonian Stairs. Then they dragged his body to the Tiber with a hook and threw him in.” Whenever they need to drag a body to the Tiber, someone always produces a hook for the job.

I found Nero’s story pretty unreal, at this point not surprisingly. He came to rule more or less by maneuvering his way into it, but once he had power he turned to his true passion, which was, I kid you not, to become a famous singer. He entered festivals, held competitions, and travelled widely to compete around the world. He was incredibly vain about it, and before he died he lamented the world’s loss of a great artist. You can just imagine how crappy he probably was, and no doubt every judge awarded him top prize to avoid being disemboweled or banished or fed to the hogs.

But Nero was also a good case study in just how far an emperor’s depravity would be tolerated, which was incredibly far, especially given the Romans’ general willingness to overthrow the ruling power by force. But Nero was allowed to basically be a monster, and everyone helped him along cheerfully, by all accounts. One of his favorite things to do was to go prowling the city at night, attack men who were walking home from the pubs, kill them, and drop their bodies in the sewer. Once he got into a bit of a scrape, and after that he always had guards follow at a discrete distance to bail him out as necessary. Think about that, and what that guard might have been thinking. Nero also had seriously fucked up sexual habits. He became so jaded with the unlimited availability of every known perversion that “he at last invented a novel game: he was released from a den dressed in the skins of wild animals, and attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes. After working up sufficient excitement by this means, he was finished off—shall we say—by his freedman Doryphoros.”  He eventually married Doryphoros and screamed like a virgin bride on his wedding night. I think he eventually had him poisoned.

You see a lot of the same thing in Gibbon, these shocking glimpses of how depraved things were. But where Gibbon is a prude and clucks his tongue as he averts his eyes, Suetonius gets down and wallows in it, making the whole book a sort of guilty pleasure, like eating packaged donuts or reading police procedurals. He still acts indignant, of course, but he doesn’t ever question the rightness of each emperor’s place on the throne. Suetonius never says who he works for, but I gather he was a courtier to Trajan or Hadrian, a good ways down the road, so presumably they weren’t monsters in these kinds of ways. Given the corrupting power of the office I have to wonder whether they weren’t monsters in some other way.

It’s not often that Roman history books can safely join someone on a trip to the beach, but this book absolutely can. It’s a fast read, full of crisp details and deft chronicling of an insane series of men who ruled the world for a time. Whatever his shortcomings might have been as a moralist, Suetonius more than makes up for it as a storyteller, which is, after all, what we want.

Excerpt from The Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius

Returning to the island, [Tiberius] so far abandoned all care of the government, that he never filled up the decuriae of the knights, never changed any military tribunes or prefects, or governors of provinces, and kept Spain and Syria for several years without any consular lieutenants. He likewise suffered Armenia to be seized by the Parthians, Moesia by the Dacians and Sarmatians, and Gaul to be ravaged by the Germans; to the great disgrace, and no less danger, of the empire.

But having now the advantage of privacy, and being remote from the observation of the people of Rome, he abandoned himself to all the vicious propensities which he had long but imperfectly concealed, and of which I shall here give a particular account from the beginning. While a young soldier in the camp, he was so remarkable for his excessive inclination to wine, that, for Tiberius, they called him Biberius; for Claudius, Caldius; and for Nero, Mero.  And after he succeeded to the empire, and was invested with the office of reforming the morality of the people, he spent a whole night and two days together in feasting and drinking with Pomponius Flaccus and Lucius Piso; to one of whom he immediately gave the province of Syria, and to the other the prefecture of the city; declaring them, in his letters-patent, to be “very pleasant companions, and friends fit for all occasions.”  He made an appointment to sup with Sestius Gallus, a lewd and prodigal old fellow, who had been disgraced by Augustus, and reprimanded by himself but a few days before in the senate-house; upon condition that he should not recede in the least from his usual method of entertainment, and that they should be attended at table by naked girls.  He preferred a very obscure candidate for the quaestorship, before the most noble competitors, only for taking off, in pledging him at table, an amphora of wine at a draught.  He presented Asellius Sabinus with two hundred thousand sesterces, for writing a dialogue, in the way of dispute, betwixt the truffle and the fig-pecker, the oyster and the thrush.  He likewise instituted a new office to administer to his voluptuousness, to which he appointed Titus Caesonius Priscus, a Roman knight. 

In his retreat at Capri, he also contrived an apartment containing couches, and adapted to the secret practice of abominable lewdness, where he entertained companies of girls and catamites, and assembled from all quarters inventors of unnatural copulations, whom he called Spintriae, who defiled one another in his presence, to inflame by the exhibition the languid appetite. He had several chambers set round with pictures and statues in the most lascivious attitudes, and furnished with the books of Elephantis, that none might want a pattern for the execution of any lewd project that was prescribed him.  He likewise contrived recesses in woods and groves for the gratification of lust, where young persons of both sexes prostituted themselves in caves and hollow rocks, in the disguise of little Pans and Nymphs.  So that he was publicly and commonly called, by an abuse of the name of the island, Caprineus.

But he was still more infamous, if possible, for an abomination not fit to be mentioned or heard, much less credited. When a picture, painted by Parrhasius, in which the artist had represented Atalanta in the act of submitting to Meleager’s lust in a most unnatural way, was bequeathed to him, with this proviso, that if the subject was offensive to him, he might receive in lieu of it a million of sesterces, he not only chose the picture, but hung it up in his bed-chamber.  It is also reported that, during a sacrifice, he was so captivated with the form of a youth who held a censer, that, before the religious rites were well over, he took him aside and abused him; as also a brother of his who had been playing the flute; and soon afterwards broke the legs of both of them, for upbraiding one another with their shame.

How much he was guilty of a most foul intercourse with women even of the first quality, appeared very plainly by the death of one Mallonia, who, being brought to his bed, but resolutely refusing to comply with his lust, he gave her up to the common informers.  Even when she was upon her trial, he frequently called out to her, and asked her, “Do you repent?” until she, quitting the court, went home, and stabbed herself; openly upbraiding the vile old lecher for his gross obscenity. Hence there was an allusion to him in a farce, which was acted at the next public sports, and was received with great applause, and became a common topic of ridicule: that the old goat—

Public domain. Translated by Alexander Thomson, M.D., revised and corrected by T.Forester, Esq., A.M.


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